corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

10 Feb '05

U.S.-Style Media Monitor Comes North

How the Fraser Institute’s U.S.-inspired CanStats targets the media and distorts science reporting.

The Vancouver Sun has framed the debate over fish farming as “a case of duelling science.” Beneath the surface of this story is a shadowy organization working to discredit any science critical of the industry.

CanStats is short for the Canadian Statistical Assessment Service. This sounds official, but the organization is actually a division of the Fraser Institute.

Most of us don’t have the time or resources to sift through complex policy papers, the CanStats web site explains. So we rely on the media to tell us. But what if the media don’t get it right because they slant the coverage?

CanStats is there to “point out the inaccurate use of scientific, technical and social scientific information in public policy debate.” Yet since it was launched in 2002, CanStats has rarely found inaccuracies in industry-backed studies. It presents its mission as a public service, but CanStats seems to be in the employ of industry, particularly industry that pollutes the environment or exposes people to health or safety risks.

And the organization has some revealing connections to the U.S. It is modelled on the Washington, D.C.–based Stats. Stats was created by the controversial Center for Media and Public Affairs, which has contributed significantly to the U.S. media’s shift to the right.

CanStats is headed by Kenneth Green, who came to the Fraser Institute from the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based libertarian think tank. The Reason Foundation gets its money from many of the same sources as Stats.

Who’s distorting what?

In an April 2004 CanStats Bulletin, researcher Jeremy Brown attacked the CBC – a common Fraser Institute target over the years – for distorting scientific findings about sea lice on wild salmon. Brown accused the CBC of misreporting a press release from the National Research Council of Canada. The CBC distortion began in the headline to its story, he alleges.

The National Research Council press release was titled “Aquatic scientists divided on role of sea lice from salmon farms in decline of native salmon in B.C.” According to the CanStats bulletin, the CBC headline read “Sea lice threatens salmon run, says researchers [sic].”

On the face of it, the headline certainly looks like a distortion by the public broadcaster.

The problem is that the CBC was not reporting on the National Research Council press release, which was issued on March 2. The CBC news item appeared on April 28, nearly two months later. The NRC was not even mentioned in the CBC story, which was simply a report on the work of marine researcher Alexandra Morton.

CanStats’ claim of CBC distortion was itself a distortion. To make a fallacious point, CanStats appears to have misrepresented the headline of the CBC item, which referred to a single researcher, Morton, not multiple researchers, as in the NRC study.

Follow the money

In the next CanStats bulletin in October, Brown and CanStats director Kenneth Green repeated its CBC headline error with the word ‘researchers’ instead of ‘researcher.’ They went on to amplify the NRC news release, which explained that scientists were divided on the role of sea lice in declining wild salmon populations. It contained the views of Morton, they noted, as well as those of Scott McKinley, a UBC professor who heads an organization called AquaNET. McKinley disagreed with Morton’s conclusions, saying there could be other explanations for declining wild salmon populations aside from the threat from sea lice from farmed salmon operations.

The CanStats charge was that the CBC was guilty of bias because it did not include the views of McKinley, once again glossing over the fact that the CBC was not covering the news release.

But if it really wanted to set the record straight, CanStats should have described AquaNET, the organization McKinley heads. AquaNET is a consortium of fish farmers, university researchers and government agencies working to promote the industry. Why would he admit sea lice are a problem?

The October CanStats bulletin also complained about the unequal coverage given by the media to critical and supportive farmed salmon studies. A January 2004 study that found much higher levels of cancer-causing PCBs in farmed salmon than in wild salmon received extensive coverage. A just-released study that found no difference in PCB levels in farmed and wild populations received no coverage in the mainstream Canadian press aside from a Vancouver Sun story.

CanStats’ conclusion? By giving unequal coverage to the studies, the media were “playing politics” and “support[ing] the cause of alarmists.”

Researching the researchers

There’s another explanation for the disparity in coverage. The study that received wide coverage was undertaken by credible, independent researchers from a number of universities using very large samples and published in the reputable peer-reviewed journal Science.

The study that received coverage only in the Sun – and which led to the Sun’s framing as duelling science – was bogus. It was underwritten by Salmon of the Americas, an industry front group, was not published in a peer-reviewed journal let alone in any journal, and its details were not made public. CanStats overlooked these serious flaws in the study.

CanStats favourite source in its fish-farming work is Dr. Charles Santerre, an associate professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University. Santerre’s oft-repeated claim, almost a mantra, is that salmon, farmed or wild, is safe to eat since contaminants are well below standards established by some regulatory agencies (except for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

In the interests of accuracy, CanStats should acknowledge that Santerre consults for Salmon of the Americas and his work has been supported by Monsanto, an international food corporation and biotechnology pioneer.

It’s not surprising that CanStats provides industry-friendly material exclusively when one considers the work of its U.S. prototype. Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman in their classic study of propaganda, Manufacturing Consent, call the work of organizations like Stats and CanStats flak: by criticizing and harassing mainstream media, flak organizations can pull news reporting to the right.

Modelled on success

Stats and its parent organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), have been spectacularly successful in pushing American television networks and newspapers rightward during 20 years of effort. Their work has been documented by Chomsky and Herman and by David Brock’s 2004 bombshell best-seller The Republican Noise Machine. CMPA receives funding from a variety of reactionary foundations such as Lynde and Harry Bradley, John M. Olin and Carthage.

Now the project has come to Canada. CanStats was launched with a grant from the Donner Canadian Foundation, a key organization in the project to change the ideological fabric of Canadian society.

CanStats is an American-inspired organization with an American director, an American agenda, advisors from the American Enterprise Institute and a Canadian target audience.

Canadian advisors include Doug Powell from the University of Guelph, who is a well-known advocate for genetically modified foods. Powell’s food safety network receives funding from dozens of corporations including Maple Leaf Foods, McCain’s Foods, McDonalds, Meat and Livestock Australia and Monsanto Canada, to name just the companies beginning with M.

Most recently CanStats went after marine researcher Alexandra Morton. In November, The Tyee published an excerpt from Morton’s essay from the book A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming. In the excerpt Morton describes her efforts to find out if escaped farmed Atlantic salmon can survive in B.C. waters.

She examined the stomach contents of dozens of these fish that had been caught by B.C. fishermen, looking for evidence of wild food. She did find some evidence to this effect, as well as other indications that the fish might be able to spawn, which would set the stage for species invasion.

Why target aquaculture?

Morton’s work was suggestive and certainly not conclusive but that did not stop CanStats from mounting a stinging attack in its next bulletin titled A Stain Upon the Science. The article quibbled with Morton’s numbers but concluded that her work was “junk science” and “scare literature.”

In 2004, CanStats published more bulletins on aquaculture than on any other subject, except for its output debunking global warming. Why might the Fraser Institute be so interested in defending the interests of fish farmers?

Fraser Institute director Michael Walker says his organization’s research program is insulated from its sources of funding. So it must be just coincidence that one of the institute’s largest benefactors is the Weston family, which also happens to own a major B.C. farmed salmon operation, Heritage Salmon. The Weston’s fishery subsidiary is performing poorly, losing $26 million in 2002 and another $20 million in 2003. It needs all the help it can get.

First published in The Tyee

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